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Managing Classroom Dynamics

critical thinkingMartyn Clarke has worked in ELT classrooms as a teacher and trainer for over twenty years and in more than fifteen countries. He joins us on the blog today to preview his upcoming webinar, Managing Classroom Dynamics.

What are classroom dynamics?

I suspect that for the great majority of teachers around the world the most important characteristic of a ‘good’ class is not how hard the students work, but how well they work together.  If a teacher is handing over a class to another, in my experience one of the first things they say is something like “they are a really nice group”, or “there’s a really friendly atmosphere in there”. Of course, it’s not always good news, and comments such as “it’s like teaching a wall” or “they’re just really difficult” are also common. The truth is the atmosphere in each class is hugely important to our job satisfaction.

This is classroom dynamics. It’s about the ways the people within a class interact with each other. It’s how they talk and how they act; it’s how they show their feelings and opinions; and it’s how they behave as a group.

Why are classroom dynamics important?

Managing classroom dynamics is also something that takes up significant lesson time. We all do things in class that are not directly related to learning English, but rather are focused on the social aspects of the group, such as managing behaviours, reacting to tensions, and generating interest, for example. But so much of what we do is instinctive and happens ‘in the moment’.  It might be useful however to take a moment and look at the issues in a more structured way.

In other words, in addition to our competences of content knowledge (grammar, lexis, etc.), and teaching skills, what skills, attitudes and strategies exist that can help us to ‘generate a psychological climate conducive to high quality learning’ (Underhill 1999: 130)?

There are good reasons for focusing on this:

  1. The cooperative skills and attitudes that we encourage in our students are among those most frequently demanded by today’s employers.
  2. A supportive, warm atmosphere helps people take the risks they need to in order to learn.
  3. Working with and in a more comfortable setting is simply more enjoyable for everyone. Life is a little better.

What can we do about classroom dynamics?

There is no one size that fits all. To a large extent, a classroom dynamic is a product of its own context as defined both internally with the uniqueness of its members, and externally in the cultural settings of the institution, and the society in which it is located.

Nevertheless we can identify certain features and characterise useful classroom dynamics across most, if not all contexts – even if these are represented by different behaviours according to the setting. For example, the visible behaviours of cooperation in a Brazilian high-school classroom might be different to those in a Dutch university or private evening class in Thailand, but cooperation remains key. Here are some aspects of classroom dynamics that a teacher may work to influence the chemistry of the group, and make it more ‘bonded’ (Senior 1997).

  1. a) The cohesiveness of the class.

Groups of people are very much brought together when they are aware of what they have in common. Shared experiences, values, and objectives lie at the heart of successful communities.  As teachers we can foster this awareness with activities that identify such commonalities, and then use them to enhance learning. In the webinar we will look at practical language learning activities and teaching techniques that can develop a sense of community within a class.

  1. b) The variety of interaction within a class.

A class that has a flexible approach to how its members talk to each other is likely to have a more inclusive, and therefore participative climate. In the seminar we will identify different modes of classroom talk, what each brings to learning, and how we can create variety.

  1. c) The amount of empathy class members have for each other.

Successful group activities involve members compromising in order to support each other. In the webinar we will look at activities and practices that encourage peer support and greater sharing of learning within the group.

How can I find out about the dynamics in my classroom?

As we have already said, classroom dynamics are local. What works in one class might not work in another. So we also need to know how to find out what is happening in our classes, so we can take the most appropriate actions. In the webinar we will also look at ways we can examine the realities of our classrooms by using:

  • Peer observations
  • Recordings
  • Student research activities

Finally…. when we teach all spend time on the social aspects of our classes. This webinar will provide a framework of analysis that can help us make more principled decisions when considering how we manage classroom dynamics. Hope to see you there!

webinar_register3

Useful reading

Gil, G. (2002) Two complementary modes of foreign language classroom interaction. ELT  Journal, 56/3

Hadfield, J (1992) Classroom Dynamics.. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Senior, R. (1997) Transforming language classes into bonded groups. ELT Journal, 51/1.

Senior, R.  (2002) A class-centered approach to language teaching. ELT Journal, 56/4 Underhill, A. (1999) Facilitation in Language Teaching. In J. Arnold (ed.) Affect in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wright, T. (2005) Classroom Management in Language Education, Palgrave Macmillan


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De-stress your classroom: stress management and well-being for teachers and students

Marie Delaney trained in the UK as an Educational Psychotherapist, English Language and Modern Foreign Languages Teacher and Teacher Trainer. Marie has extensive experience of working with pupils who are experiencing difficulties at school. Today, she joins us ahead of her webinar, ‘De-stress your classroom: stress management and well-being for teachers and students’, to discuss what she will be covering in the sessions.

Teaching and learning can be fun and energising. However, many teachers and students nowadays feel pressurised, stressed and de-motivated. Teachers all over the world seem to be faced with increasingly unrealistic expectations, scarce resources, widely diverse student needs as well as the continuing challenge not to be replaced by new technologies. Surveys suggest that students also have increased levels of anxiety and stress around school and future prospects.

We need, therefore, to be looking at the issue of teacher and student well-being. How can we reduce the feelings of stress and anxiety in our classrooms? We need to begin by recognising and acknowledging them. Suppressing and denying feelings of stress will often lead to physical and emotional burnout. Stressed teachers are not effective. It is important to focus on conscious coping strategies for managing our own well-being so that we can best support our students.

Strategies to promote teacher well-being include:

  • Eating properly, getting enough sleep and regular exercise.
  • Spending time on activities which you love doing. Find time for your interests and passions.
  • Becoming aware of people and tasks which energise you and those which drain you. Make sure you are creating time in your day/week for those which give you energy and positive feelings.
  • Talking through issues with supportive colleagues, who do not need to provide solutions but who can listen non-judgementally. Avoid moaning sessions with negative colleagues, which do not make anyone feel any better.
  • Practising positive self-talk and catching your own unhelpful thoughts. Be kind to yourself and don’t expect perfection.
  • Trying to stay in the moment and enjoy it.
  • Noticing what is working and doing more of that, rather than paying attention only to problems

When we start to do these things more consciously we can begin to share the ideas with students. Many of them do not possess good coping strategies for times of stress and anxiety. They need to learn how to get into positive states for learning. For example, music can be used as a positive trigger or anchor to bring classes into a calm mood for learning. It is worth spending some time helping students to identify other positive triggers for their own moods and encouraging them to use them to get into the right frame of mind for learning.

It can be useful to teach students how thoughts can affect feelings and behaviour. For example, optimistic thoughts can influence a student’s success. An optimistic student who gets 5/10 thinks ‘That’s good, I know half of this, I need now to look at what I got wrong and see who can help me get it right. A pessimistic student who gets the same mark, thinks ‘Oh no, I’m so stupid, I might as well give up now’. These thoughts will affect their feelings and their behaviour in the approach to the next test.

The webinar on 22nd and 23rd October will explore this topic in more detail and suggest further ways for teachers to de-stress their classrooms.

Register for the webinar


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Classroom Management and Using Smart Devices

Can Smart Devices really be used for learning? Thomas Healy, co-author of Smart Choice Second Edition, shares his ideas ahead of his webinar on 9 and 11 December on the subject. 

I’ve always been intrigued by the lines in the David Bowie song, Cat People (Putting out Fire), where he sings that he’s “been putting out fire. With gasoline.” In a sense, this is what I attempted to do when I first started using smart devices and social media extensively in class, as a response to my frustration with students’ attempts to text and play with their phones in class.  Rather than banning them and reprimanding students, I decided to use the devices whenever it made sense. Since all of my students had them, I used smart technology to turn every classroom into a T.E.C. (Technology Enhanced Classroom).

In order to evaluate the effect of the devices on teaching and learning, I used the following graphic organizer.

Figure 1. Evaluation Graphic Organized

Figure 1. Evaluation Graphic Organized

  1. Dealing with distraction.

First of all, I considered my own role and behavior in class.  I used to be extremely frustrated when students started texting class. Now, for the most part, I ignore this behavior.  I don’t let it distract me. Also, I know from my own texting behavior during meetings and conferences, that it is quite possible (especially for this generation) to do more than two things at the same time. I intervene when the behavior clearly inhibits the student’s individual learning or when an individual student tries to distract other students in the class with something that they are doing with their smart device (like looking at pictures of puppies).

Students also know that at any time I can ask them to take a photo of their work and to upload it to Learning Management System (see fig. 2). We use Facebook groups for this. I can ask them to message the image to me privately or to post to the group for peer review. I have found that this is a very effective way of keeping students on task.

Figure 2. A paraphrasing activity which a student posted to Facebook for peer review.

Figure 2. A paraphrasing activity which a student posted to Facebook for peer review.

  1. Time management

One of my priorities is helping learners develop their presenting skills. This is a very time-consuming process, as in addition to the presentations themselves, we have to give each student feedback. Rather than fiddling with cameras, I have every student record their own presentation with their phone. We improvise camera stands (see fig. 3).

Figure 3. Improvised camera stand.

Figure 3. Improvised camera stand.

 

We also save time by having students upload their presentation slides to the Facebook group before class, rather than fussing with USB drives and the class computer. A great timesaver is doing the feedback outside of class entirely. Students upload their presentations to the Facebook group. We discuss the evaluation criteria in class but use the comments feature of Facebook for the actual feedback, which is done outside of regular class time (see fig. 4)

 

Figure 4. Posting a recording of a presentation and using the comments function for feedback.

Figure 4. Posting a recording of a presentation and using the comments function for feedback.

  1. Classroom procedure: keeping a record.

Pop up grammar refers to grammar points which arise in class and but are not part of the lesson plan (see fig 5.). I used to be quite frustrated that students would sit and listen to me explain a grammar point, but not take any notes.

Figure 5. A pop-up grammar lesson written on the board.

Figure 5. A pop-up grammar lesson written on the board.

 

Now, I ask a student (and as a course progresses, I don’t even have to ask) to take a photo of what I learned on the board and upload it to our Facebook group (see fig. 6).

Figure 6. The pop-up grammar lesson posted by a student to our class Facebook group.

Figure 6. The pop-up grammar lesson posted by a student to our class Facebook group.

  1. Action plan

Using the graphic organizer above (figure 1), I have tried to measure the impact of using smart devices and social media on how I teach. While the potential for students to get distracted (by Candy Crush or any other of the infinite things they can do) definitely exists, I have found that by using the extensive features of social media platforms and the smart devices themselves, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. The key is to make the technology a central part of the process, rather than just a fun, occasional thing to do from time to time. Doing so reinforces the notion that the technology is a powerful learning tool, rather than a plaything.

Take part in Thomas Healy’s live webinar – “Classroom Management and Smart Devices” – to discuss how technology can become a powerful learning tool in your classroom. Register today!


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A positive learning environment: establishing expectations (Part 4)

Eager children in classThis is the last of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some practical ways to minimise disruptions during classes. 

What do you expect from your students? Sit down for a few moments and think about your classes. Think about where you are as the class begins. What are you doing? Where are the students? What are they doing? As you think about the class, note down anything you would like to improve. Don’t worry if it’s easy or difficult. Just note it down. Then, look back at your notes and decide on 3 to 5 points you want to work on immediately.

After reflecting on my classes of about 25 teenagers, these were the four aims I came up with:

– The classroom is in order.

– Students are ready for class.

– Classes begin more efficiently.

– Students participate actively during the lesson.

Remember, these are aims. I took them to my classes and wrote them on the board. I told my students this is what I expected from them. I got a lot of blank looks. They had heard this before. There was nothing they could really disagree with. But what do they mean? What does “the classroom is in order” mean? Can you picture it?

It is important to be able to visualise the difference between how things are now and how you expect them to be. Why is the classroom not in order? Define each aim so that students can see when it is not being met. For my classes, “the classroom is in order” meant that:

– The chairs are in their places.

– The desks are clean and in their place.

– The board is clean.

Anyone looking at the classroom can see if these 3 aims are being met.

Having the classroom in order based on these 3 aims may seem very simple and obvious. Let me explain why it was important. My students came into my class with the results of the previous class still evident. Having left in a hurry, there were fallen chairs, desks at different angles, books and other materials from previous lessons on their desks, notes still written on the board. This was affecting the beginning of my lessons, so it became important to begin the class with the classroom in order.

With the idea of making each aim visually clear, discuss each one with your students. These are the results of the discussion with my students:

Students are ready for class  

– There are no materials on the desk, except those needed for the English lesson.

– The student has his class book, workbook, and notebook.

– The student has pen, pencil, and rubber.

The reason for these aims was the number of disruptions in class based on not having the materials they needed. Equally important, materials from other lessons meant that many students’ desks were disorganised. This was affecting their focus on the material in my lessons. My students already had a problem focussing on the lesson with these distractions.

Classes begin more efficiently

– The student is on time.

– The student enters in an orderly way.

– The student leaves in an orderly way.

What does “on time” mean? This greatly depends on the situation in your school. Some schools use a two-bell system and, in this case, being on time is being in class before the second bell rings. Many schools use the bell to call students (and the teacher) into class. Some schools do not use a bell system, at all. What is important is that you and your students agree and that it is obvious to all when a student is late. Based on the one bell system, my students arrived in the classroom at about the same time I did, walked in as I did, and went to their desks, as I did.

What does “in an orderly way” mean? Again, discuss this with your students. It could mean no running. It could mean going straight to their desks. It could even mean, not using their own language when they enter the English classroom.

Students participate actively during the lesson

– The student listens actively.

– The student works when necessary.

Initially, listening “actively” was difficult for my students to visualise. “How do you know we are listening actively?” they asked me. But based on the routine I wrote about here in a previous blog post, “A positive learning environment: the first 10 minutes (part 2)”, they quickly understood that they would need to listen to each other in order to participate in the class.

“when necessary” also became a point of discussion. Originally the aim was for students to be engaged in the lesson. This proved very difficult for larger classes with a greater degree of mixed abilities and learning preferences. My students felt they should not be punished if they had finished an exercise and were waiting for others. I accepted this, and so I took on the responsibility of keeping them all engaged. It was a challenge.

Responsibility Skills

Rather than calling them classroom rules, I labelled them “responsibility skills”. I made a poster with the aims and put it up in my classrooms. By having the poster with the aims in the classroom, I did not need to repeat or remind. I could simply look at the poster, and then look at the student. They understood what was wrong, because they could see it as easily as I could.

Then, it was a matter of being patient as students adjusted to the new expectations. Over time, about 3 months for me, these became part of the class routine, for which I congratulated them.


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A positive learning environment: establishing expectations (Part 3)

Eager children in classThis is the third of a four-part series of articles from Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, about establishing a positive learning environment in the classroom. Here he shares some exercises to help establish expectations of general behaviour from students. 

We have shown our students what kind of behaviour we expect from them as they enter the classroom. Now, let’s discuss what kind of behaviour we expect from them in general.

When I first walked into a class of 36 10-year-olds armed with my knowledge of EFL and many good intentions, I was not aware how completely unprepared I was for the experience. Looking back, I am happy to say, “I survived.” I can also say that I learned a lot. I went into that classroom as their English teacher, when I should have gone in as their teacher. I thought behaviour was someone else’s responsibility. It wasn’t. So, I needed to establish what I expected from my students in our classroom. So, how do you want your students to behave in your class? What do you expect them to do? How will you let them know of your expectations?

Talk to them about it.

Having shown them what I expected in the first 10 minutes, it was time to talk to them about it. Keep the conversation positive. Avoid the words “rules” and “don’t”. Tell them that you consider them responsible people, that they are part of a group, and that every group needs to know what is expected of them in order to work better. With some laughter and wicked smiles, they all agreed.

When students understand why they are doing something, they can do it better. So, talk to them about that routine in the first 10 minutes of class.

– Exercise on the board

By having the exercise on the board, they have something to do when they come in. Tell them that you’ve been a student too and you know that the more time they take to start, the less work they will have. Wasting time means less work. You want to take away that waste of time.

– Warm up to the language

By working individually on a simple exercise they start thinking in English and stop thinking in their own language. It is like warming up slowly before playing a sport or a musical instrument. Remind them that the exercise is easy, based on language they have done and seen before.

– Revision of language learned

As the exercise and the language are both familiar, it is good revision of the language before starting on new material. Tell your students that it is normal to forget. Everyone forgets. But, everyone forgets different things. As a group they know the material, so as a group, they can help each other remember.

– Working as a group

As everyone is working on the exercise, students who know the answer say it to the rest of the class. If they don’t know an answer, or they are not sure, all they have to do is listen. Together, everyone will have the right answers at the end of the activity.

– Opportunity to practice speaking

Tell them you understand that speaking in English is not always easy for everyone. By beginning the class with a simple exercise in which everyone has the answers, they have an opportunity to speak using simple language. This will give them confidence for more complex speaking activities later on in the lesson. It is like training during the week before a big football game on Sunday, or practicing a musical instrument before playing at a concert.

– Everyone can do it

Remind them that the activity at the beginning of the class is based on effort, not on knowledge. Everyone can do it. What they don’t know, they will get by listening to others in the class. They can improve their pronunciation in the same way – listening to others who give the answers. Reinforce the idea that, if they want to, everyone can do this.

 “I am a responsible person.”

When you have finished the discussion, take out a piece of blank , white paper and write in large letters, “I am a responsible person” in the centre of the page. For older students, at a higher level of English, I would write, “I am a responsible person and deserve to be treated as one.” Ask them to sign it, if they agree with the sentence. Some students may not sign just to see if you will notice, some to see what you will do, and others, (especially teenagers), because they enjoy having a “rebellious” nature. At this point, simply collect the paper and put it up in the classroom.

By discussing what you do in class and why, you are already treating your students as responsible people. You are showing them that what you do is to help them, because you believe they can do it. You are establishing a positive learning environment because you believe all of them can and will learn.

Next week I will be covering establishing expectations for the lessons in general.